Biblical fasting refers to the voluntary abstinence of food for spiritual purposes. The Bible provides many examples of people, cities and nations that turned to God in fasting and prayer during times of deep desperation.
Fasting in the Old Testament
Voluntary fasting by Old Testament figures indicated a forlorn and urgent seeking of God in very distressing circumstances. For example:
- In 2 Samuel 12:16-18, David fasted and wept for his dying child.
- The Jews fasted when they were threatened with extermination at the hands of Haman as is recorded in Esther 4:3, 16.
- In Jonah 3:6-10, Nineveh fasted after Jonah pronounced judgment on them.
From these examples it is easy to see a common thread; those who were fasting were facing very extreme conditions such as God's imminent judgment or impending death. Normal eating habits were suspended in order to seek God.
Fasting During Spiritual Suffering
Fasting also occurred during times of deep personal suffering, such as when Hannah grieved over her infertility and "wept and would not eat," in 1 Samuel 1:7.
It is important to understand that fasting was not a typical or normal spiritual ritual but one that was born out of a desperate spiritual urgency; a seeking to be close to God during very trying times. Joel 2:12-13 notes:
"Yet even now," declares the LORD, "Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments."
People in the Old Testament fasted as a way to express their shattered hearts. Fasting was considered an act of humility and repentance. When faced with overwhelming circumstances, they sought deliverance from God.
Internal Prompting for Biblical Fasting
Old Testament fasting was prompted by the spiritual realities of sin, judgment, repentance, helplessness and complete dependence on God. Fasting is a means for man to realize:
- The depth of his sin
- The seriousness of judgment
- The necessity of repentance
- Utter helplessness and dependence on God
Fasting in the New Testament
The New Testament mentions fasting, but not as frequently as the Old Testament. For instance, Ann, a prophetess and widow, worshipped at the temple with "fasting and prayer night and day" in Luke 2:37.
Another example comes from Matthew 9:15: And Jesus said to them, "Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast."
Biblical Reasons for Fasting
When looking at the Scriptures for reasons why individuals, cities and nations fasted, the following is revealed:
- Fasting to be like Christ - Matthew 4:1-17; Luke 4:1-13
- Fasting to repent from sins - Jonah 3:7-8; Samuel 14:24
- Fasting to mourn for the dead - 1 Samuel 31:13
- Fasting to ask for God's help - Ezra 8:21-23; Nehemiah 1:4-11
- Fasting to strengthen prayer - Matthew 17:21; Mark 9:17-29; Acts 10:30; 1 Corinthians 7:5
Types of Biblical Fasts
Although specific types of Biblical fasts are not listed by name in the Bible, there are three "kinds" of fasts found:
The only actual fast command given in the Bible was connected to the Day of Atonement. This fast lasted from sunset of one day to sunset of the next as cited in Leviticus 16:29; 23 ;32. This is a fairly easy fast since you do not normally eat during the night so much of the fasting time is during the sleeping hours.
Many people who are interested in fasting start with a normal fast and fast on one particular day per week each week, often from sunset on Saturday to sunset on Sunday. During this time no food is to be eaten and only water is drank.
In a partial fast, the emphasis is on dietary restrictions rather than a complete abstinence from food. Daniel, Shadrack, Meschach and Abednego demonstrated this fast by eating only vegetables and drinking water in Daniel 1:15 and when Daniel ate alone and practiced a limited diet for three weeks as cited in Daniel 10:3. Although some people may not classify this as a type of fast, Daniel 10:3 refers to the word "mourned," which was often a synonym for fasting.
Susan Gregory outlines a contemporary Daniel Fast in her book entitled The Daniel Cure. In this book she talks about the Daniel Fast as a type of partial fast wherein some foods are restricted and others are included. The fast is totally plant-based and centers around fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, healthy oils and whole grains. The only beverage allowed is water. No meat, dairy, caffeine, sugar, artificial sweeteners, highly processed food or bread are allowed on the fast either.
During a radical fast, one refrains from both food and water or just food for an extended period of time. It is imperative that you seek medical consultation before beginning such a fast. An example of this type of fast can be found in Esther when she decided to not eat or drink for three days (Esther 4:15-16). Both Paul and Ezra went without food and water for three days and David went seven days without food when pleading with God to save his child's life (2 Samuel 12:15-20).
Although Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11) and Moses (Deuteronomy 9:9-18) both fasted for forty days, this was only done through empowerment from the Holy Spirit.
Fasting for the Right Reasons
John Broadus, biblical commentator, noted that fasting is the right thing to do only when it is a natural expression of an inward distress. Abstaining from food, said Broadus, can help one focus on meditation and worship.
So, if you are full of happiness and joy, it would seem inappropriate to take part in a spiritual fast. In James 5:13 we read, "Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise." The natural response to joy is singing praise, not fasting.
If, however, you are grieving over the loss of someone you love or in the middle of a difficult health battle, experiencing family trials or battling sin, fasting may flow naturally as a reaction to the trial and your understanding of God's omnipotence.
A Note of Caution
God did not design fasting as the sole means to draw closer to him. According to the Bible, going without food does not transform us but the renewing of our mind daily does.
"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." Romans 12:2
Keep Biblical Fasting Private
Matthew 6:16-18 says to keep fasting to yourself, as a private matter and do so with humility. Fasting should never be a public display of spirituality for others to see. Fasting is never to be a public display of spirituality - it is between you and God alone.
The decision to fast should be prompted and guided by the Holy Spirit. Always seek spiritual and medical guidance before beginning a fast.